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Hackett speaks on CRS for Forum

Madeline Roe | Friday, September 24, 2010

Dr. Ken Hackett, President of Catholic Relief Services (CRS), explained the fundamental Catholic identity and history of the international charity organization Thursday night as part of the Notre Dame Forum.

For the second annual Rev. Bernie Clark, C.S.C., lecture, the topic “Globally Engaging Charity in Truth” alluded to Hackett’s integration of Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Caritas in Veritate” into CRS.

“At CRS we have taken a lot of time to examine what’s inside these documents,” Hackett said. “It reminded us that humanitarian action should be rooted in a selfless love that should always be done in a spirit of humility.”

Hackett, who oversees approximately 5,000 employees in over 100 countries, approached the task of aiding world disasters with a definitive mission adhering to Catholic Social Teaching.

“Integral human development, that I would contend, sets CRS apart from the many humanitarian agencies that appear to look just like us,” Hackett said.

“We consciously try to incorporate Catholic Social Teaching in everything we do. What might be surprising to you, we haven’t always been good at integrating these things.”

Hackett reflected on the development of CRS by defining “three phases of history,” in which he perceived “lenses” of the world and how to address specific issues.

First, Hackett described the “social welfare lens” in the beginning stage of forming CRS.

In the context of the “darkest days of WWII,” CRS focused on the corporal works of mercy and established a network of international institutions, called “Caritas Internationalis,” that still function today.

“Catholic identity was strong but it was difficult to look introspectively,” Hackett said.

The “social development” stage in the 60s and 70s was geared towards “providing sustainable solutions,” but Hackett said there was an absence of a Catholic identity.

“We became to look more and more like any other NGO,” he said.

The important shift of the organization to Catholic Social Teaching occurred through several tragic and personal experiences. Hackett said he was shocked to learn that CRS hadn’t provided fresh water to the people of Somalia but instead to a group of conquerors.

After providing food amidst the ethnic tensions in Rwanda two years before the genocide of 1994, Hackett said the CRS realized the need to change the direction of their efforts.

“800,000 were slaughtered in a most vicious way [in Rwanda]. It was horrific, and for us, it was personal. Because CRS staff lost colleagues, friends, family members, it wasn’t something over there, it was in here — personally and institutionally,” he said. “And after the genocide, we learned a tough, bloody lesson: all the good work we thought we were doing … was not enough.”

Hackett said that he and other CRS officials knew about the ethnic tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis that eventually led to genocide that claimed nearly one million lives. He said he regrets that he did nothing to address the issue before it was too late.

“That was politics. We did development,” he said. “We realized after that cleansing, a lot of weeping, and introspection and prayer that we as an agency had to start addressing justice issues in imbalance of society in Rwanda and imbalance of society elsewhere. And we started to incorporate a justice-centered focus worldwide.”

Embracing the principles of solidarity within Catholic Social Teaching, CRS redefined the endeavors of the organization towards the human dignity of stricken people, as well as the employee relationships with one another.

“Catholic Social Teaching is not just a theological exercise,” Hackett said. “It’s a practical and fundamental guide for how the church should live in the world. And we as an organization should transform ourselves to function in the world.”

In the closing questions, an African priest from Darfur gave homage to Hackett’s work with CRS benefiting his people, yet posed the question of how the Catholic Social Teaching vision should appeal to the majority of CRS workers, who are not Christian.

Hackett responded with the words of St. Francis.

“‘Preach always, sometimes use words.’ We should be recognized by what we do and how we do it,” Hackett said.

Hackett closed by acknowledging that people of all faiths identify with the dignity of a human person.

“You know who you are and you’re ready to say who you are, without boastfully pushing who you are. Do it with humility,” he said.